Rachel Alexandra stumbled at the start and struggled down the stretch, but the heralded filly was still good enough to beat surging Mine That Bird to the wire in the 134th Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.
The stirring, one-length victory proved to be vindication for all concerned - for owner Jess Jackson, who opted to send the 3-year-old filly against the boys; for Calvin Borel, who became the first jockey to abandon a Kentucky Derby winner for another Preakness horse; and for Mine That Bird, the smallish gelding with the giant finishing kick.
It was a historic race, the first Preakness victory by a filly since 1924 when Nellie Morse won, and the first time since 1906 that a filly (Whimsical) won here as a favorite. On top of that, Borel was the first rider to win the Derby and Preakness on different horses.
Unfortunately, an announced crowd of only 77,850, watched at Pimlico, a drop-off of nearly 35,000 fans from a year ago. The overall handle of $86,684,470 was the fifth highest ever for the Preakness - the second jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown.
History was set up last week when Jackson, founder of the Kendall-Jackson wine empire, purchased Rachel Alexandra after her huge victory in the Kentucky Oaks on May 1. He left the question of whether she would run in the Preakness to trainer Steve Asmussen and his veterinarians, opening himself to public scrutiny and criticism, in part because fillies typically don't run against the boys.
"She showed the heart and skill of a champion," Jackson said. "Our decision was, not vindicated, but was correct."
Saturday's race ensures another year without a Triple Crown winner – the last was Affirmed in 1978. But a rematch between the super filly Rachel Alexandra and Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird could emerge June 6 in the Belmont Stakes in New York.
Saturday, Jackson left the question of whether Rachel Alexandra would run in the Belmont to the horse herself.
"It will depend on her," he said of the Belmont. "The horse always tells you whether they're ready. ... We'll wait for three, four days, see how she comes out of the race. Then we'll give her the same scrutiny we did with the vets.
"Would we love to run? Yes. Could she win? We think so. We've already shown she can run with the colts."
Mike Smith, the substitute jockey on Mine That Bird for Borel, said he doesn't expect to see the filly in the Belmont, though. And if he does, he said he believes his horse will win this time.
Borel won for the sixth straight time aboard Rachel Alexandra, but this was not like the Oaks two weeks ago, when she won by better than 20 lengths. This was a troubled trip right from the beginning. Running from the 13 post, she got distracted, Borel said, when Big Drama reared in the gate and had to be backed out.
From there, the filly stumbled out of the gate and broke to the right. But she recovered quickly, and Borel moved her to the lead to avoid getting hung out "eight or nine wide" at the first turn. She never trailed after that, but Mine That Bird was charging at the end.
"She had something to prove and I felt she proved it emphatically," Asmussen said. "The race didn't unfold exactly as we expected it to. [But] she was still good enough to win a classic."
As expected, Mine That Bird dropped behind the pace and was running last at the half mile before launching his run. He was four lengths back going into the stretch, but running well.
"I'm thrilled to death with the race my little horse ran," said Chip Woolley Jr., Mine That Bird's trainer. "Everything was going according to Hoyle, until the turn when he was fanned a little wide. I thought we had a chance at the eighth-pole."
Smith, the substitute jockey for Borel, closed the gap in the stretch. But he couldn't get the inside lane that Borel found in the Kentucky Derby. He had to come after the filly from the outside.
"If we could have gone another sixteenth of a mile, I think he would have tackled her," Smith said. "On the backstretch, I tried to duck back in, but there was a lot of traffic. ... [Rachel Alexandra] beat the greatest colts in the country today. You have to take your hat off to her. I thought she'd come back to me, but she kept on going."
Rachel Alexandra fought the track down the stretch as Mine That Bird closed ground. Borel said in the last quarter mile, "the ground was breaking out under her a little bit." He used the bit to steady her through the stretch.
But his confidence never wavered. And his decision to swap mounts proved as insightful as his ability to ride the rail.
"I just knew it was the right decision to do," he said. "I mean, I'm paid to win and I knew she was going to win. I knew she was the best horse to ride all along."
A 9-5 favorite, Rachel Alexandra paid $5.60, $4.60 and $3.60. The Saturday win earned her $660,000 of the $1.1 million purse as well as the Woodlawn Vase trophy.
Jackson sought a greater triumph with the validation of Rachel Alexandra as one of the best 3-year-olds. He said a portion of the winnings would go to cancer research.
"My mother died of cancer," Jackson said. "I had two aunts die of cancer. My wife is a recoverer of cancer. So is her mother.
"I have four daughters and I feel very strongly that we should be supporting the research that will lead to – if not a cure – at least a control of this disease. So this is one of the reasons she's running with a pink ribbon."
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